'Star Wars' prosthetic arm gets FDA approval

DEKA Arm System prosthetic

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the first prosthetic arm that responds to muscle contractions and gives users a new level of dexterity. Developed under a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program, the DEKA Arm System—nicknamed after Luke Skywalker—is about the same size and weight as an adult human arm and is capable of 10 different movements.

FDA said it approved the device after Veterans Affairs Department tests showed that 90 percent of users could perform tasks that they could not with their current prosthetics—handling keys and locks, preparing food, using zippers, feeding themselves and brushing and combing hair. The system allows users to handle objects ranging from a grape to a power tool, DARPA said.

FDA also tested the system’s software, electrical and battery systems, its protections against unintended movements, durability in environmental conditions such as dust and light rain, and its ability to withstand impact.

The prosthetic was developed by DEKA Research and Development Corp. with $40 million in DARPA funding. The Army Research Office and Army Medical Research and Materiel Command also contributed to the project.

DARPA launched its Revolutionizing Prosthetics program in 2006 “to repay some of the debt we owe to our service members,” said Dr. Geoffrey Ling, M.D., director of the agency’s Biological Technologies Office  and a retired Medical Corps neuro-critical care officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  To date, the most common upper-limb prosthetic is still the split-hook device invented in 1912.

The DEKA has a modular design and can be fitted for people with limb loss at the shoulder joint, mid-upper arm, or mid-lower arm, though not at the elbow or wrist joint, FDA said.

The battery-powered prosthetic contains electromyogram (EMG) electrodes that respond to electrical signals from muscle contractions. The system also has a variety of mechanisms such as switches and wireless sensors for feel, movement and force that enable movement and provide feedback.

DARPA noted that the system is the result of breakthroughs in a variety of biological and engineering fields, from miniaturization of electronics and motors to new manufacturing processes and the development of strong, lightweight materials.

DEKA—whose founder, Dean Kamen, invented the Segway and holds more than 440 patents—code-named the system “Luke” after Luke Skywalker, whose dismembered hand is replaced with a robotic version in “The Empire Strikes Back,” the second movie of the original “Star Wars” trilogy.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.

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